By Isabel Tejera
'Rose, I whispered as they zipped my mother in her body bag, / get out of there. / Your plants are dying. / Enough is enough. / Time is a motherfucker, I said to the gravestones, alive, / absurd’. Ocean Vuong expresses the depths of grief and loss in his latest collection Time Is a Mother. The poet was born on a rice farm in Saigon in 1988. At the age of two, he moved with his family to Connecticut. Growing up in America as a Vietnamese, gay, working-class immigrant, he spent his formative years on the periphery; even now, after winning prestigious awards and securing a movie deal for his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s humility remains an integral part of his character. He used the prize money from the 2016 Whiting Award as a down payment for a modest home for his mother, and after the flurry of grant money, his only big splurge was on a coat. In a 2019 interview, Vuong explains: ‘I don’t see myself as a success story even though I’ve experienced success. Everything I learned along the way was a strength.’ Raised Buddhist, he still meditates and continuously reminds himself of the person he was when he first fell in love with writing. ‘I bring him to the present,’ he says, ‘not the person who won the awards – he has nothing to teach me.’ The alienation of Vuong’s youth is precisely what makes his poetry so vulnerable and perceptive. If Vuong’s writing accomplishes one thing, it is plunging the reader into his rich emotional landscape.
Ever since his debut book, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Vuong has evinced the extraordinary ability to convey moments that are at once deeply personal and universal. In the first few pages, his feelings take on a life of their own, grab you by the hand and hurl you into a world of turbulence. The distant voice in the opening lines of ‘Threshold’, the first poem in the collection, arrests the reader: ‘In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar. On my knees, / I watched, through the keyhole, not / the man showering, but the rain / falling through him’. The speaker reveals himself to be on the outside, looking in – and positions the reader likewise. The private act of showering contrasts with the distance of the spectacle, and the poem’s title itself implies a sort of tipping point. How far do we go in order to feel loved? To answer this question, Vuong draws the reader into his journey of self-knowledge. Throughout the collection, the poems cover expansive ground and offer little respite from trouble and grief – from his family’s arrival in America after the Vietnam War and their struggle to assimilate, to Vuong’s troubled relationship with his father and exploration of his sexuality.
Vuong’s literary prowess is most apparent in the delicate balance between showing and telling: his writing is full of ambiguity, leaving space for interpretation in the images that he strings together. For instance, throughout the collection, the colour green takes on a recurrent symbolism, with varying connotations between life and death. The line ‘green, how I want you green’ in Night Sky is an explicit allusion to a 1928 poem by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, which similarly links green and death. This symbolism reappears in the collection Time Is a Mother: ‘Green voices in the rain, green rain in the voices’ and ‘Now I’m a beautiful short loser dancing in the green’ in ‘Beautiful Short Loser’; ‘I’m told our blood is green’ in ‘You Guys’; and ‘in veins beneath your cheek: green branches / in a sunset sky’ in ‘Dear T’. The way the colour’s meaning evolves – green as revenge, green as lust, green as youth, green as sickness and age – hints at the coexistence between violence and beauty that bleeds through all of Vuong’s writing.
In a 2019 interview, Vuong drove around his old neighbourhood, nonchalantly pointing to where people had overdosed. One of the most significant themes in Vuong’s writing, which comes up again in Time is a Mother, is his simultaneous disdain for and idolisation of everything that America represents. Throughout Vuong’s work, death is normalised – whether in the context of war, the home or the streets upon which he grew up – but notably recurs with his exploration of the American opioid epidemic. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ interweaves his grandmother’s memories of the Fall of Saigon in April 1975 with lines from Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, once used as a signal to begin the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees. Vuong writes: ‘The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police / facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola … Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded / with gunfire. Red sky.’ The contrast of these two settings emphasises the starkness between his family’s history in Vietnam and the promise of a better future in America. And yet, as the collection unfolds, Vuong comes to convey that making home in America carries its own set of baggage: America and weapons, America and poverty, America and trauma. Vuong’s world is one where destruction is the default mode. Moments of relief become rare and sweet, a way to process the tension between ongoing tragedy and stubborn hope.
Even moments that start out as beautiful – such as Vuong’s father galloping towards the shore of a beach – recall painful memories. In Night Sky, Vuong writes: ‘The last time / I saw him run like that, he had / a hammer in his fist, mother / a nail-length out of reach.’ Vuong flips through good and bad moments as if they are TV channels, emphasising the coexistence of discordant emotions. The good necessitates the bad and vice versa, each becoming a negative space wherein the other takes shape. Similarly, in Time Is a Mother, Vuong describes intentionally crashing his car while driving with his father so that they touch. He writes: ‘He slammed / into me & / we hugged / for the first time / in decades’. Here, the questions posed in his earlier works sharpen into focus.
In Time Is a Mother, Vuong revisits the theme of violence in everyday life by exploring the ways in which language might be exploited, how trivial words and phrases – ‘Knock 'em dead, big guy. Go in there / guns blazing, buddy. You crushed / at the show’ – both dictate and are dictated by American pop culture. We are made to understand that the coexistence of violence and tenderness is not only physical but also verbal. Thrown around so casually, words can be at once affectionate and hold inescapably violent undertones. As Vuong explains in a 2019 interview, ‘Oftentimes in the Western canon, the language gets taken for granted. English is always there … But here, I wanted to really question what happens when language itself is almost another character in the book.’ Vuong enjoins us to carry the English language with more intention, to be more selective with the phrases we use and to reflect on the relationship between our words and our culture. Or perhaps he offers a commentary on how language, once ‘briefly gorgeous,’ has been irreparably degraded. Either way, it is the prismatic nature of Vuong’s verse which makes it so compelling.
If Vuong explores the inextricably bound relationship between beauty and pain, his relationship with his mother, Rose, becomes its very embodiment. Time Is a Mother can be seen as the dissolution of a three-part narrative arc that originates in Night Sky. In the very beginning of Night Sky, Vuong chronicles the initial separation he feels from Rose as he comes of age and becomes more fluent in English; in a twist of irony, the very thing that helps him survive, assimilate and eventually make a living also alienates him from his family and identity as a Vietnamese refugee. In ‘The Gift’, he describes a scene where his illiterate mother, a nail salon worker, stubbornly practises the alphabet to no avail: ‘a b c a b c a – the pencil snaps’. For Vuong, language becomes both bridge and barrier, connecting him to the outside world while separating him from those he loves. In his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Little Dog addresses his mother, who, like Vuong’s own mother, is unable to read or write, in the form of an epistle: ‘Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.’ At the same time, Vuong underscores his estrangement from his maternal language when Little Dog asks his mother: ‘What if the mother tongue is stunted? ... The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level.’
Vuong’s oscillation between autobiography and fiction only heightens the emotional intensity that we experience while reading his writing. The grief that pervades Time Is a Mother is raw and palpable as Vuong chronicles Rose’s battle with breast cancer. Perhaps one of the most harrowing poems in Time Is A Mother is ‘Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker’, in which Vuong details his mother’s illness through her online Amazon purchase history. By listing ordinary items – a four-pack of Advil, Vicks VapoRub, ‘Night Out Red’ Lipstick, Little Debbie Chocolate Zebra Cakes, and, later on, a Chemo-Glam cotton head scarf and birthday card that says ‘Son, We Will Always be Together’ – Vuong presents an an intimate portrait of his dying mother. Here, his emphasis on the coexistence of beauty and pain evolves into something new. His mother’s illness is not presented as something violent or abrupt, but rather as a gradual decrescendo. At no point does Vuong portray the moment of his mother’s death. Instead, he circumnavigates it, recounting the moments before and after – like ‘putting on blush before heading to chemo’. Underneath it all, Vuong depicts death as a stepping stone rather than an ending, where time regenerates into something new entirely. It is an unlikely yet powerful elegy.
Grief, for Vuong, is the ultimate paradox – something beautiful and deeply painful all at once. ‘I can say it was gorgeous now, my harm, because it belonged to no one else,’ Vuong writes. In taking ownership of his grief, Vuong positions himself and the reader not as outsiders peering through a keyhole but rather in the full light of day: naked, vulnerable and seen. Writing, for Vuong, becomes the only way to self-materialise. It is a way to preserve a piece of his history and a way to move beyond the disorienting sense of loss. Grief is survival; it is restoration of time lost; above all, it belongs to its beholder. As Vuong concludes: ‘Then it came to me, my life. I remembered my life / the way an ax handle, mid swing, remembers the tree. / & I was free.’
ISABEL TEJERA reads for an MPhil in International Relations at Wolfson College. Originally from Spain, she moved to the UK strictly so people would find her accent ‘mysterious’.
Artwork by Yii-Jen Deng